Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is highly respected by his fellow Emiratis, extremely well connected on the international stage, yet lately has been putting his fingers in too many pies.
When Bin Zayed was born in the dusty town of Ain in 1961, the UAE was neither a country nor a nation. It was known as the Trucial States, a set of British-ruled protectorates set up in the late 19th century to control piracy in the Persian Gulf.
Bin Zayed was ten years old when his father, Sheikh Zayed, brought together a federation of six other major families to form the United Arab Emirates.
He received his education at local schools in Ain and Abu Dhabi. In 1979, he joined the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in the United Kingdom – a long-time ally of his family – where he trained in armour, helicopter and tactical flying and as a paratrooper. He graduated a year later and returned home to join the Officers’ Training Course.
He held several roles in the UAE military, from officer in the Amiri Guard (the UAE’s elite security force) and pilot in the air force, to his current role as deputy supreme commander of the armed forces.
Although he put away his uniform some time ago, he remains first and foremost a military man. A look at his biography on the Emirati government website shows the extent of his role in and influence on the army, putting into perspective the expansion of the army’s budget and arsenal since he became the de facto ruler in 2014. It is now one of the best-equipped army’s in the region.
Bin Zayed married Sheikha Salama bint Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Nahyan in 1981 and has nine children with her.
Away from politics, he heads the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, a philanthropic endowment established to provide targeted grants to individual species conservation initiatives, recognize leaders in the field of species conservation and elevate the importance of species in the broader conservation debate.
A passionate falconer himself, Bin Zayed is committed to the protection of falcons, as well as other species, including the oryx and houbara from the Arabian Peninsula. In line with his dedication to environmental protection, he has also taken the lead in alternative energy projects in Abu Dhabi, primarily Masdar City.
He is also committed to fighting human trafficking through a 55 million dirham donation to the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking; and in 2011, he and the Gates Foundation pledged $50 million each to fund the purchase and delivery of vaccines for children in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Bin Zayed grew up witnessing the rapid transformation of the UAE from huts to Hilton hotels and skyscrapers. Along the way, his father, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, elder brother Khalifa and he learned two valuable lessons: the UAE cannot survive without outside protection and they need to remain strategically significant to keep mainly their Western allies interested and on board. Moreover, the country’s geographical location puts it between two regional powers that historically have shown an interest in controlling it.
The shah of Iran had occupied three Persian Gulf islands claimed by the UAE mere days before the country’s declared independence, while Saudi Arabia tried to conquer Bin Zayed’s hometown of Ain in the 1950s but failed. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE signed the Treaty of Jeddah in 1974 to end 40 years of territorial conflict.
Following independence and British decolonization, his father wove a web of alliances mainly rotating around the world’s superpower the United States, offering bases and ports for its growing fleet in the Gulf.
The 1979 revolution in Iran became the main direct threat for the Emirates’ sovereignty.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan’s strategy of maintaining the UAE as an oasis of political calm was inherited and upheld by his son and successor Khalifa, until his debilitating stroke in 2014. Bin Zayed then emerged as the de-facto ruler of the country, although he had already been at the helm of its domestic and foreign policy for almost a decade.
Since the Kuwait war, the Gulf states have enjoyed safety and security, provided mostly by their American ally, yet over the year, Iran’s growing influence has raised serious concerns in the region. As the Bush years became the Obama ones, Washington policymakers saw China as an emerging threat and began to shift their focus away from the Middle East towards containing the giant in the Far East.
Beginning in 2010, alarm bells began ringing in Abu Dhabi. Obama was serious about negotiations with Tehran. He also oversaw an oil-dependent American economy shaking off it shackles due to domestic fracking. Subsequently, American interest in and concern about Saudi Arabia dwindled, as did its interest in the UAE.
The fears of Gulf monarchs were aggravated when the Arab Spring engulfed the region and proved that the Obama administration would do little to assist its old allies and friends. More importantly, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood terrified many Gulf monarchs, who viewed it as a direct threat to their governing models.
Bin Zayed felt the heat when an Emirati opposition group, al-Islah, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood circulated petitions demanding greater representation in the UAE. He responded by arresting the group’s members and forcing them to sign humiliating promises that they would not demand democracy again. He subsequently introduced an anti-terrorism law intended to keep them in prison or in exile. By crushing all opposition, he sent a message that he would do whatever it took to preserve the system at home, and then embarked on a mission to rebalance power in the region.
His fears were amplified when Qatar allegedly supported an array of Arab revolutionaries (liberals, socialists and Islamists) through the state-run broadcaster al-Jazeera, with which Bin Zayed has long clashed over its editorial policies, offering them a platform to speak out.
His response was to try and contain the effects of the Arab Spring immediately and seek all possible avenues to limit its repercussions.
He first focused on Egypt as the most significant of the Arab nations where the Muslim Brotherhood had gained a political foothold, allying himself with reactionary forces within the country which it backed diplomatically and financially. After Abdel Fatah al-Sisi seized power in 2013, the UAE flooded Cairo’s coffers with billions of dollars to help stabilize the devastated economy. Al-Sisi’s grip on power tightened, but his biggest threat remained feeding a nation of 90 million people.
With a new leadership installed in Saudi Arabia in January 2015, Bin Zayed moved to strengthen the relationship among both leaders and to align their policies. Indeed, he succeeded by presenting himself as the ‘mentor’ of the young and ambitious Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, given his father King Salman’s ailing health and lack of interest in ruling.
The designated enemies then became Qatar and Turkey, who both sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood and were supporters of the ‘change’ that was occurring in the Arab world.
Leaks of correspondence by the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, in 2017 revealed the extent of the influence held by the UAE in major political and diplomatic circles in the United States as well as its media. Billions were also spent supporting and enhancing al-Sisi’s regime.
The final piece of Bin Zayed’s strategy was strengthening ties with the Trump administration, which seemed to use rhetoric that heartened the Emirati.
First came the Russia-Trump spy affair. According to the Washington Post, ‘[T]he United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to US, European and Arab officials.’
Bin Zayed then flew to Washington and was among the first heads of state to be hosted by the new president. Ahead of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Bin Zayed held talks with him at the White House and discussed enhancing cooperation on counterterrorism, confronting Iran and building on the increasingly close relationship.
Bin Zayed and MBS engineered Trump’s visit to the kingdom and talked to the president in the language dearest to his heart: money. An agreement, worth $350 billion over ten years, was signed between the Saudi leadership and the Trump administration.
The strategy behind this back-channel approach was an attempt to neutralize a Russia-US rivalry that had increased under Obama, in an attempt to get Russia to back off Iran, a relationship that had developed after Russia intervened to save the regime in Syria, a common ally for both.
This would give Bin Zayed more leverage to roll back the Iranian threat, which stems mainly from its expansionist Shia supremacist approach.
Moreover, with the coup attempt in Ankara, which Otaiba’s leaked emails alleged had been bankrolled by the UAE, Bin Zayed pushed MBS to a stand-off with the Qataris, the weakest link in the bigger regional chain.
According to the Washington Post, citing US intelligence officials, the UAE arranged for Qatari government social media and news sites to be hacked in late May 2017 in order to post fiery but false statements about Qatar’s emir, prompting a diplomatic crisis that has yet to be resolved.